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Rabbanit Alissa's Rosh Hashanah Drasha

09/09/2021 11:32:39 AM


BDJ Family~~Though I am still on family leave right now caring for my father, I wanted to share my heart and some words of Torah with you. So many of you have reached out to me with love and support, and it only felt right for me to be with you on Rosh Hashanah and to honor my father in this way. I am so grateful to the BDJ leadership and professional staff, Rav Yosef, Adynna, our board, lay leaders, and hosts for not only making this possible for me, but for achieving the immense task of organizing our chagim this year with resilience and vision. Thank you~~


The week my father became extremely ill and was hospitalized was also the week of my daughter Ella’s second birthday. Living with both at once — going to hospitals late into the night, doing vidui for my father, and fighting for his life— to then come home to a happy toddler who continually sang ‘happy birthday to Ella’ (which by the way she continues to do, and her birthday was in July)— was jarring. It was exhausting but it also felt like I was and am living at the poles of all that life is. Immense, pure, exuberant simcha. And terror, fragility, and yirah— real awareness that life is only in God’s hands. It is maddening and inspiring, and it is also the essence of מי יחיה ומי ומות, “who will live and who will die…”


There is an intriguing halachic debate that speaks to this tension and reveals direction and meaning. The halachic question is whether a person may fast on Rosh Hashanah. The Shulchan Aruch rules as we would expect: it’s asur (prohibited) to fast because it is a chag, and on chagim אוכלים ושותים ושמחים, “we eat, drink, and are joyful”. But the Rema codifies a confounding practice: יש אומרים דמצוה להתענות בר"ה, “there are those who say that it is a mitzvah to fast on Rosh Hashanah” (תקצז:א,ג). Those who fast do so because Rosh Hashanah is Yom HaDin and on a day of teshuvah, fasting is a spiritual tool to bring forgiveness. While the bottom line halachic practice is still not to fast (with only some chasidim throughout history doing so), we must ask-- how can such a debate exist in our tradition?! 


Rav Natronai Gaon of 9th century Bavel offers a telling compromise: That it is prohibited to fast on first day Rosh Hashanah because it is mideorita, but that it is permitted to do so on second day because it is miderabanan (meaning we can be more lenient), which he rules is fitting during the aseret yemei teshuvah. Rav Asher Weiss today makes the connection between Rav Natronai Gaon’s compromise and a teaching of the Netziv, of 19th century Poland. The Netziv on Parshat Emor in his Harchev Davar (his gloss on Haamek Davar), explains that there is a fundamental difference between the first day of Rosh Hashanah and the second day. The first day is one of simcha, joy that we are coronating our King. The second day is of yirah, of judgment, teshuvah and forgiveness of our sins. This is why, the Netziv explains, Rav Natronai Gaon suggested that fasting on Rosh Hashanah would be permitted on the second day only. The first day is a day of ושמחת בחגך, joy and feasting. And the second day is more austere, on which we ask for God’s compassion. And fasting is traditionally used to do just this. 


We also see this distinction between the first and second days of Rosh Hashanah in the leyning. On the first day, we read about the birth of Yitzchak, drawing upon the Rosh Hashanah themes of potential, life, and hope in the new year. On second day, we read the Akeidah, a moment when that same child faces death. It reflects uncertainty and judgement, sitting with yirah-- and the conviction that faith will ultimately be met with Divine rescue. And throughout our machzor, we constantly vacillate between joy and fear, celebrating Melech Kel Chai Vekayam and we as His chosen children, while we also internalize that we are עפר ואפר, but dust and ashes, כצל עובר, like a fleeting shadow. 


Nestled into a halachic debate and the teachings of Rav Natronai Gaon and the Netziv, and woven throughout our machzor itself, we reveal the essential spiritual work of Rosh Hashanah: that we straddle life and death. That we fully inhabit both the joy of first day and the fragility of second day and learn that the two are inseparable in being human-- just as the two compose the wholeness of Rosh Hashanah. Facing our personal experiences of gratitude, hope, simcha, as well as of sorrow, flaw, and brokenheartedness. This is how we embark on our new year.


Living with the reality of life and death is overwhelming-- almost too much of an emotional rollercoaster (and I personally know that so many of you have either been in that space or supported someone who is). And yet it’s our guidebook to the teshuvah process of being written in God’s book for goodness, peace, and wholeness. Why? Because a person who is aware of both the immense joy of life and the reality of human suffering and yearning has the clarity to see what matters most. He can cherish moments of simcha and have the sensitivity to ease pain and address what is broken in our world. These two days of Rosh Hashanah give us the rare opportunity to feel joy with a full heart that we are alive and can love each other and God— and to become sensitive to that which is broken in ourselves and in our world. To atone, to heal, to repair. This means we can’t numb ourselves. We can’t turn off the news, ignore the pain, or forget this past year and a half (as much as we may want to). We can’t separate life and death. To truly effect change and healing, we have to live with both, with all of the complexity that comes with them. Otherwise, we do each a disservice. I will be the first to say the burden is immense, and I would not have it any other way.


At his bedside, my father and I have been reading Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning”. It has been a loving and guiding text for a father and daughter to share in such vulnerable moments. Frankl reminds us that “human potential [a]t its best always allows for...deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action.” All we do this chag in straddling life and death is geared toward this end. Perhaps most profoundly in responding to the call that becoming our best selves must make our world better. 


The joy of a child singing happy birthday to herself. And the sorrow of watching a parent deteriorate and fight for his life. This is life. Seeing both challenges us to mitigate pain and create and cherish whatever joy we can in this world. And to know what matters most. 

What are the poles of your life that you are going to access — what is your greatest blessing and what is your greatest fear right now? On a personal level and on a global scale? With this in mind, let us read Unetanetokef this year through a new lens…such that we take מי יחיה ומי ימות off of the page and place it into our hands in partnership with God…


How will we live right now, knowing that we are finite? Who among us is celebrating life and wants to share that joy? Who among us is dealing with death right now and needs our support? Who is feeling כַחֲלוֹם יָעוּף, like a fleeting dream, yearning to be grounded and held? And so on…


Straddling life and death, simcha and yirah, is the gift of two days of Rosh Hashanah. The book is open. May we have the clarity to know what we want written in it for ourselves, each other, and our world. Ketivah v’chatimah tovah!

Mon, April 15 2024 7 Nisan 5784